MIDDLEBURY — In an entertaining Saturday game, the much improved Middlebury Union High School boys’ basketball team outlasted rapidly improving Otter Valley, 54-44, at MUHS.
As well as displaying maximum effort, players showed sportsmanship as well — they often patted each other on the back or helped each other up after diving or colliding as they hustled for loose balls or rebounds.
After the first half ended at 21-21, OV pulled out to a 28-23 lead in the third period before the Tigers closed the quarter with an 8-0 run capped by Ben Ferris’s banked, buzzer-beating three-pointer. The Tigers — 3-2 after winning only once last winter — never trailed again.
MUHS coach Chris Altemose said the Tigers’ effort on defense made the difference. His team has relied all season on pressuring and double-teaming the ball, and on Saturday they forced 24 OV turnovers, 13 in the second half.
“We found a way to win a tough game. We dug it out. We didn’t play well in the first half,” Altemose said. “But they buckled down, played together, got it together and pulled it out. In the second half I thought our defensive pressure really got to Otter Valley.”
To Altemose, OV’s 1-5 record under second-year coach Nathan Bellomo is also misleading. The Tigers smoked the Otters — who graduated almost all their key players — in the preseason. Altemose said OV looked like a different unit this weekend.
“I thought Otter Valley played really tough, really scrappy,” he said. “We saw Otter Valley in a scrimmage here in the first Saturday, and he’s got my vote for coach of the year right now, I tell you, because that team is so much better now.”
Bellomo, although not happy that his team was outscored, 23-16, in Saturday’s fourth quarter, agreed the Otters have made progress. In addition to showing better vs. MUHS, OV also nearly upset 6-1 Mount St. Joseph in its previous game, a 39-35 setback. In the first meeting between MSJ and OV, the Mounties won, 72-43.
“We’ve had two games where we’ve played better than the first four games, so as I told the kids it’s all about ourselves and we just have to improve,” Bellomo said. “We had three good quarters, but when you give up 23 points in a quarter it’s hard, especially against a team like this, which is relentless and just keeps coming at you.”
Early on, the Tigers took a quick 6-2 lead as MUHS senior Brendan Burrell scored four of his game-high 19 points. But OV leading scorer Ryan Kelley, a sophomore forward, answered with eight of his 13 points, and with OV working hard in its man-to-man defense, it was 11-11 after one period.
In the second quarter, 6-foot-5 OV center Keke Frye (15 points and a dominant performance on the boards) took over. Frye scored OV’s first six points of the second, with the final hoop coming on a sweet lob pass from junior guard Chris Cimonette.
Sophomore forward David Burt hit a jumper for MUHS to cut the OV lead to 17-16, but Cimonette (13 points) sank a trey to make it 20-16. But OV managed only a free throw down the stretch, and hoops by Burt and a bucket and a free throw by sophomore guard Mitchell Clarke (13 points) forged the halftime tie.
In the third, OV switched to a 2-3 zone that flummoxed the Tigers; they committed five of their 15 turnovers in the quarter. In the first 3:20, OV took a 28-23 lead with a 7-2 run. While the Tigers managed just two free throws by senior forward Carl Leduc, Kelley drove for two, senior Brian Rademacher (who was active on the boards) contributed a putback, and Frye converted a three-point play.
But the Tigers defense held OV scoreless for the rest of the period, and the Tigers began to solve the zone. Burt drew a foul and hit a free throw, and Burrell hit a jumper and then converted a steal at 1:00 to tie the game.
Then the Tigers got a break: Ferris’s last-second three-pointer from the right side banked home to give the Tigers a 31-28 lead — and a shot in the arm.
“Ben Ferris’s three pointer that he hit, that sparked us off,” Burrell said. “That was a big shot for us.”
Bellomo said the shot at least momentarily punctured the Otters’ balloon.
“In that last minute (of the quarter) the wheels kind of came off. We had a couple turnovers, a couple missed shots, (gave up) a couple offensive rebounds. And then the kid hits the luck shot in the corner, and we’re down three,” Bellomo said. “Sometimes high school kids, that deflates them.”
OV had controlled the boards for the first half, but the Tigers earned the second-half edge, and Leduc (8 points) continued their momentum in the fourth quarter with three second-chance points. A Clarke jumper made it 36-28, MUHS, before a minute was gone, and capped a 13-0 run.
Kelley snapped OV’s 5:43 scoreless streak with a free throw at 6:57, but Leduc put his own miss back in at 6:20 to make it 38-29. A Cimonette trey made it 38-32, but Ferris hit a jumper, and then after Burrell knocked the ball loose on the inbounds play, it went to Ferris, who fed Burrell for a layup at 5:35 to make the lead 10.
Another Cimonette three at 2:25 cut the lead to 46-41, but that was as close as OV came.
The Otters will look for improved play to translate into wins starting this week, when they host Mill River on Tuesday and Mount Abraham on Friday.
“They’re still young. They’re juniors, they’re sophomores,” Bellomo said. “The more games we have like this (the better).”
Altemose has the luxury of seeing both improvement and victories.
“I love my team,” he said. “They play so hard. They just get after teams, and it makes it tough for bigger stronger teams to compete for four quarters with us. That’s what we’re about. We went into the season preaching that, and they bought into it, and every day we’re getting a little better.”
Burrell said a key to the Tigers’ success has been togetherness, notably how well the team’s many talented younger players have blended in with the veterans. As long as they keep the focus on continued improvement, he believes more wins can follow.
“I feel like we can make a run in the playoffs, but it’s hard to tell right now. It’s still early in the season,” Burrell said. “We have to keep improving every game, which is what we’re doing right now.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.